Archive for the ‘markets’ Category

what problems do people think antitrust is going to solve?

Last week, I asked why antitrust is having a moment (it’s continued, on Planet Money and elsewhere), and why Democrats are using radical language to make fairly modest proposals. In this post, I’m going to ask what problems people think antitrust is going to solve, anyway.

Certainly a lot of the current concern about antitrust comes from a broad sense that corporations are too economically and politically powerful, that our economy has been restructured in ways that make ordinary people worse off, and that massive tech companies are able to use our data in ways that we have little control over. That’s political antitrust. And those are totally real issues.

But I want to explore some new questions being raised that are not exactly within the current scope of economic antitrust, but that are still kind of speaking its language—that are pushing to change the antitrust technocracy, not up-end it. To recap, as it has been construed for the last thirty-plus years, the purpose of antitrust is to promote consumer welfare, generally by trying to keep firms from being able to raise and keep prices above a competitive level. The focus is consumers, and prices.

Increasingly, though, people at least adjacent to the space of antitrust expertise are making claims about economic problems they think are being caused by lax antitrust enforcement, or that antitrust should be addressing. And those proposals are worth keeping an eye on, because as hard as it might be to change the expert consensus, it’s still more likely than a new anti-monopoly movement. (Though the two could certainly reinforce each other.) I see these new arguments as falling into basically three categories.

Market power has effects we didn’t realize

Market power is the ability to keep prices above a competitive level (i.e. above marginal cost). Once upon a time, people thought there was a fairly close relationship between how concentrated a market is—that is, how many companies control what share of the market—and how much market power firms have. Since the 1970s, there has been much less of a presumption that concentration, on its own, indicates market power. That means that there’s been less concern about whether we’ve got four airlines controlling 70% of the U.S. market, or that four carriers control 99% of the U.S. wireless market.

Increasingly, though, people are raising flags about other problems that might result from market power. One of these is labor monopsony—the idea that firms have market power, but as purchasers of labor, not sellers of products, and that this is driving wages down. The Council of Economic Advisers put out a report last fall suggesting this might be happening, and Democrats’ mention of “bargaining power for workers” implies this is part of what they’re trying to address. There are related arguments about market power in supply chains and the emergence of “winner take most” industries that also suggest links between concentration or market power and wages.

In theory, monopsony can be handled within the current legal framework, though it is rarely addressed in practice. So developing arguments about the effects of market power on workers, and a legal framework for addressing that within antitrust, is one conceivable new direction for antitrust.

Others are arguing that market power can lead firms to attach undesirable conditions to products that make them lower quality, even as price remains the same. In particular, some scholars, including Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz, have framed privacy as an antitrust issue: the product may be free, but consumers have no choice about how their data is used (and in the case of platforms like Facebook, no equivalent competitors). Privacy is hard to address within a framework focused purely on price. But in Europe, competition policy is increasingly tackling privacy issues, and Germany is currently investigating whether Facebook’s dominant position is forcing consumers to give up their privacy without having an alternative choice.

Market power has causes we didn’t realize

The Atlantic just featured a story with the dramatic title, “Are Index Funds Evil?” The article discusses the rise of large institutional investors—index funds, though not only index funds—and what it means that, increasingly, big chunks of competitors in a specific market are actually owned by the same few corporations. It goes on to discuss work by José Azar, Martin Schmalz, and Isabel Tecu that finds that this common ownership enhances market power, and that airline ticket prices are 3-7% higher than they would be under separate ownership.

In this story, index funds were the hook, but it just as easily could have been framed around antitrust. In a way, common ownership was the original antitrust question: the big trusts of the late 19th century were not single-firm monopolies, but competitors that had turned over ownership to a group of trustees that made unified governance decisions. And while research in this area is still new and findings tentative, legal scholars are already making the case that antitrust law can cover the anticompetitive effects of these horizontal shareholdings. If this work continues to hold up, this seems potentially transformative.

Technological change is creating new threats to competition

Finally, a fair bit of the recent chatter is basically arguing, “it’s the technology, stupid.” The dynamics of competition change as more of the economy shifts to online platforms. Because of network effects, companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon are hard to compete with—much of their value comes from their existing user base. And because they aren’t just selling products to consumers, but connecting consumers with producers, they aren’t acquiring market power in the traditional sense. Facebook and Google are free products, after all.

But the power of network effects means that they have a tendency towards monopoly. And the fact that the four largest companies by market capitalization are platforms suggests how central platforms have become to our economy.

So we have these new companies that have become very large, and that appear monopolistic, though they also create great value for consumers. From an antitrust perspective, they don’t really appear to be a problem, because they aren’t raising prices. And the history of rapid technological change over the past 25 years, including the rise and fall of a number of once-dominant platforms, raises the question of whether even platforms behaving in anticompetitive ways pose much of a long-term threat.

Recent scholarship, though, argues that monopolistic platforms are in fact anticompetitive, that it is a problem, and that current law is poorly equipped to handle. Lina Khan’s much-circulated note in the Yale Law Journal, for example, argues that 1) platforms encourage predatory pricing—generally seen as irrational (and thus not an issue) within antitrust law—because network effects encourage pursuit of growth over profit, and 2) platforms collect data on rivals that give them an unfair competitive advantage. These sorts of issues clearly fit within the broad scope of “protecting competition,” but don’t fit easily with a consumer welfare, market power conception of antitrust.

Changing that would be a significant project, but if we have an economy that is dominated by firms whose potentially anticompetitive activity is essentially beyond the scope of antitrust, there’s not much left to antitrust. And again, the massive fine the E.U. just levied on Google—for favoring its own shopping service, consisting of companies that pay Google to be on it, over competitors in search results—suggests what this could look like. So far, the U.S. has not demonstrated much enthusiasm about expanding antitrust in this direction. But it’s not inconceivable that it could happen, and it could be done within a framework that was focused solely on competition, if not only on consumer welfare.

Again, all these challenges to the current antitrust framework are at least in the ballpark of its conversation, even if they would require pushing the law in new directions or advancing the acceptance of new economic theories. And they are not the only arguments that are in play here. For example, the question of whether inequality is facilitated by concentration or market power, or whether it has become such a central economic problem that antitrust should try to address it, have prompted enough discussion that two leading antitrust scholars have felt the need to argue that antitrust should leave inequality alone.

Unlike political antitrust, which would probably require a social movement to move it forward, these antitrust arguments have the potential to gain traction without necessarily requiring legislation or a revolution against the current antitrust regime. The 1970s shift toward Chicago-style antitrust happened, to a considerable extent, because the old economic framework seemed increasingly inadequate for explaining the world people found themselves in. As the current framework comes to seem similarly dated, this could be another moment when such change is possible.


Written by epopp

August 10, 2017 at 1:33 pm

the democrats can’t decide how radical they want to be on antitrust

The other day I wrote about the current moment in the spotlight for antitrust. (Here’s the latest along these lines from Noah Smith.) Today I’ll say something about the new Democratic proposals on antitrust and how to think about them in terms of the larger policy space.

The Democrats are basically proposing three things. First, they want to limit large mergers. Second, they want active post-merger review. Third, they want a new agency to recommend investigations into anticompetitive behavior. None of these—as long as you don’t go too far with the first—is totally out of keeping with the current antitrust regime. And by that I mean however politically unlikely these proposals may be, they don’t challenge the expert and legal consensus about the purpose of antitrust.

But the language they use certainly does. The proposal’s subhead is “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies and the Abuse of Economic and Political Power”. The first paragraph says that concentration “hurts wages, undermines job growth, and threatens to squeeze out small businesses, suppliers, and new, innovative competitors.” The next one states that “concentrated market power leads to concentrated political power.” This is political language, and it goes strongly against the grain of actual antitrust policy.

Economic antitrust versus political antitrust

Antitrust has always had multiple, competing purposes. The original Progressive-Era antitrust movement was partly about the power of trusts like Standard Oil to keep prices high. But it was also about more diffuse forms of power—the power of demanding favorable treatment by banks, or the power to influence Congress. That’s why the cartoons of the day show the trusts as octopuses, or as about to throw Uncle Sam overboard.

The Sherman Act (1890) and the Clayton Act (1914), the two major pieces of antitrust legislation, are pretty vague on what antitrust is trying to accomplish. The former outlaws combinations and conspiracies in restraint of trade, and monopolizing or attempt to monopolize. The latter outlaws various behaviors if their effect is “substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.” The courts have always played the major role in deciding what that means.

Throughout the last century, the courts have mostly tried to address the ability of firms to raise prices above competitive levels—the economic side of antitrust. For the last forty years, they have focused specifically on maximizing consumer welfare, often (though not always) defined as allocative efficiency. Since the late 1970s, this has been pretty locked in, both through court decisions, and through strong professional consensus that makes antitrust officials very unlikely to challenge it.

Before the 1970s, though, two things were different. For one thing, the focus was more on protecting competition, and less on consumer welfare per se (the latter was assumed to follow from the former, and was thought of a little more broadly). For another, the courts sometimes took concerns into account other than keeping prices low.

The most common such concern was the fate of small business. Concern for small business motivated the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, which prohibited anticompetitive price discrimination. It was clear in the Celler-Kefauver Act of 1950, which restricted mergers out of fear that chain stores would eliminate local competition. And the courts acknowledged it in cases like Brown Shoe (1962), which prevented a merger that would have controlled 7% of the shoe market by pointing to Congress’s concern with preserving an “economic way of life” and protecting “local control of industry” and “small business.”

Today, Brown Shoe is seen as part of the bad old days of antitrust, when it was used to protect inefficient small businesses and to pursue confused social goals. This is a strong consensus position among antitrust experts across the political spectrum. While no one thinks that low prices for consumers are the only thing worth pursuing in life, they are the appropriate goal for antitrust because they make it coherent and administrable. Since those experts’ views dominate the antitrust agencies, and have been codified into law through court decisions, they are very resistant to change.

The Democrats’ proposal: radical language, incremental proposals

So when the Democrats start talking about “the abuse of economic and political power,” the effects of concentration on small business, and limiting mergers that “reduce wages, cut jobs, [or] lower product quality,” they are doing two things. First, they are hearkening back to the original antitrust movement, with its complex mix of concerns and its fear of unadulterated corporate power.

Second, they are very much talking about political antitrust, and political antitrust is deeply challenging to the status quo. But their actual proposals are considerably tamer than the fiery language at the beginning, and are structured in a way that doesn’t push very hard on the current consensus. New merger guidelines could make some difference around the margins. Post-merger review would definitely be good, since there’s currently no enforcement of pre-merger conditions that firms agree to, and no good way to figure out which merger approvals had negative effects. I have a hard time seeing a new review agency having much effect, though, since it’s just supposed to make recommendations to other agencies. Even I don’t like bureaucracy that much.

So my read on this is that the Democrats feel like they need a new issue, and it needs to look like it helps the little guy, and they want to sound like populist firebrands. But when you get down to the nitty gritty, they aren’t really so interested in challenging the status quo. That is, basically, they’re Democrats. Still, that the language is in there at all is remarkable, and reflects a changing set of political possibilities.

Next time I’ll look at some of the problems people are suggesting antitrust can solve. Because there are a lot of them, and they’re a diverse group. Tying them together under the umbrella of “antitrust” gives an eclectic political project some nominal coherence. But is it politically practicable? And could it actually work?

Final note: If you are interested in the grand historical sweep of antitrust in capitalism, I recommend Brett Christophers’ The Great Leveler. Among other things, he totally called the emerging wave of interest before it actually happened. Sometimes the very long lens is the right one to use.

Written by epopp

August 3, 2017 at 3:04 pm

why antitrust now?

Antitrust is having a moment. A couple of years ago, with the possible exception of complaining about never-ending airline mergers, no one paid attention to antitrust debates. Today, it’s all over the place. A few months ago, it was the Economist proclaiming “America Needs a Giant Dose of Competition.” Last month it was Amazon and Whole Foods. And now antitrust has become a key plank of the new Democratic platform.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but this antitrust explainer written by Matt Yglesias yesterday (which is generally quite good) motivated me to put fingers to keyboard. So I’m going to break this reflection up into three parts: Why antitrust now? What does the new antitrust debate mean? And what would it take for it to succeed? Today, I’ll tackle the first.

At one level, the rise of antitrust interest is just a perfect convening of streams, in the Kingdon sense. A problem (or loose collection of problems) rises to public attention, people are already out there advocating a solution, even if so far unsuccessfully, and—the moment we’re in now—politicians have the motivation to grab that solution and turn it into policy, or at least a platform. It’s just about timing, and it’s not predictable.

At the same time, I think we can unpack a couple of different factors that help us think about “why now”. Some of this is covered in the Yglesias piece. But there are a few things I’d add, and some different angles I’d highlight. So without further ado, here are four reasons antitrust is suddenly getting attention.

1. It’s a reaction to a change in objective conditions.

There is a degree of consensus that market concentration is increasing across the economy. Even if you don’t think concentration is a problem, it wouldn’t be surprising that an increase would lead some people to challenge it, and make media more open to hearing that claim. This is probably a contributing factor. But market concentration has been increasing for a long time, and the link between concentration and exercise of power, whether market power or political power, is at best complicated. I don’t think the rise in concentration explains much of the antitrust attention.

Other phenomena are emerging that are objectively new, and raise new questions about how to govern them. Amazon now controls 43% of internet retail sales in the U.S. That’s astonishing, and at least a little alarming. But we’ve now seen several generations of various platforms (operating systems, browsers, social networks) rise to dominance and sometimes fall, mostly without a lot of antitrust attention—Microsoft, at the turn of the millennium, being the significant exception. These objective changes are a necessary but definitely not sufficient for public attention to rise.

2. New actors are organizing around this issue.

A lot of the noise around antitrust is coming from a relative handful of people. Until the Democrats came on board, it was Elizabeth Warren on the political side, and before that Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor who gave Andrew Cuomo a run for his money in 2014.

On the think tank side, as Yglesias notes, it’s the Open Markets Program at New America. Fellow Lina Khan, once of the Teachout campaign, landed an NYT op-ed on Amazon and Whole Foods. Fellow Matt Stoller’s Atlantic article on antitrust, “How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul,” got a lot of attention when it came out last fall. Barry Lynn, who runs the program, has been working on this issue for a decade.

The Roosevelt Institute is the other significant player in this space. (Here’s a good, if now difficult to read, piece from last summer explaining the history of Roosevelt.) Marshall Steinbaum and others have made the case for a range of antitrust issues on a variety of grounds, and the influence of both these organizations on the new Democratic congressional platform is clearly visible.

There’s no question that this kind of policy advocacy—talking to policymakers, writing articles and op-eds—is making a difference. But its impact has been facilitated by two other things.

3. The space of expertise is changing in unexpected ways.

Antitrust policy is a space heavily dominated by experts. Congress rarely touches antitrust issues. The public rarely pays attention. Presidents generally talk a good antitrust game, and may care more or less about appointing antitrust officials who will pursue a particular policy line. But for the most part, antitrust is dominated by the lawyers and economists who serve in the Antitrust Division and FTC, consult on antitrust cases, write academic articles, and a handful of whom become judges.

And there is bipartisan consensus among these experts that concentration isn’t generally a problem. Markets are contestable. Predatory pricing is irrational, because firms know that if they drive out competitors then jack up prices, they’ll just attract some new entrant into the market. There’s really no point. Yes, there may be a little more antitrust enforcement among Democrats than Republicans. But it’s a game played “between the 45 yard lines.” As Richard Posner said recently, “Antitrust is dead, isn’t it?”

But this space is changing in interesting ways. The change doesn’t seem to be coming from the antitrust community itself, exactly. But it’s coming from people with the academic clout to be taken seriously.

From one direction, you have people like Jason Furman and Joseph Stiglitz making arguments about labor market monopsony contributing to lower wages and arguing that economic changes require new kinds of antitrust solutions. From another, you have Luigi Zingales overseeing an effort (at the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center, no less) to advocate for stronger antitrust, calling his position “pro-market” rather than “pro-business”. Zingales’ efforts are also notable for bringing in historians, political scientists and other experts usually not privy to the antitrust policy conversation.

None of these people work primarily on antitrust issues or even industrial organization, but they have the status to be taken seriously even if they are not among the usual suspects of antitrust. Their novel arguments have the capacity to shift the expert consensus about antitrust—either mildly, as in Furman’s arguments about the importance of labor monopsony (which don’t require a radical rethinking of the current approach), or more radically, as in Zingales’s advocacy of an antitrust that takes political power seriously.

I’ll discuss these changes more in the next couple of posts, but in terms of explaining “why antitrust now,” the point is that these insider/outsider dissenters are amplifying new voices and new issues, and thus contributing to the current wave of attention.

4. The cultural moment is right for other reasons.

If there’s one belief that seems to unite Americans across the political spectrum these days, it’s that the game is rigged against the ordinary person. For the many Americans who think big business is doing at least some of the rigging, this produces a new openness to arguments about concentration and corporate control. As much as anything else, I think this explains the current interest in antitrust. People are receptive to arguments that purport to explain why they’re being screwed.

Antitrust is a protean issue. It can channel many different types of fears and at least theoretically respond to many different kinds of problems. Whether it can do so effectively, and whether antitrust is the right tool for the job, is a different question. In my next post I’ll try to unpack some of those different problems, why they’re now being linked together under the umbrella of “antitrust,” and draw on some antitrust history to think about what current efforts mean.

Written by epopp

August 1, 2017 at 1:51 pm

do we need illegal firms?

Over at Harvard Business Review, Benjamin Edelman argues that Uber’s ultimate problem isn’t bad corporate culture. It’s being an organization that is premised on being illegal. To quote:

But I suggest that the problem at Uber goes beyond a culture created by toxic leadership. The company’s cultural dysfunction, it seems to me, stems from the very nature of the company’s competitive advantage: Uber’s business model is predicated on lawbreaking. And having grown through intentional illegality, Uber can’t easily pivot toward following the rules.


Uber’s biggest advantage over incumbents was in using ordinary vehicles with no special licensing or other formalities. With regular noncommercial cars, Uber and its drivers avoided commercial insurance, commercial registration, commercial plates, special driver’s licenses, background checks, rigorous commercial vehicle inspections, and countless other expenses. With these savings, Uber seized a huge cost advantage over taxis and traditional car services. Uber’s lower costs brought lower prices to consumers, with resulting popularity and growth. But this use of noncommercial cars was unlawful from the start. In most jurisdictions, longstanding rules required all the protections described above, and no exception allowed what Uber envisioned. (To be fair, Uber didn’t start it — Lyft did. More on that later on.)

Edelman goes on to make a number of fair points: by operating illegally, employees are at risk and it encourages poor corporate culture.

But here’s another take. What if some industries need to be developed through illegality? For example, right now in the US, many marijuana firms are operating in a de facto state of illegality, with Federal law (which supersedes state law) outlawing recreational marijuana. Despite this problem, many dispensaries remain committed to marijuana distribution and they innovate. My conjecture is that their practices will set the standards for the future recreational marijuana industry. Even in Edelman’s article, he refers to Napster, which illegally made music easier to distribute. They broke the law, but created a new market in the process.

In these three cases (Uber, Napster, US marijuana distributors), the market was expanded and developed through illegality. This suggests to me that Edelman’s point is good – firms working illegally may be saddled with too many problems. But it elides an even bigger point. Various regulations and state granted monopolies create needless zones of illegality. For some markets to develop, somebody has “break the rules to make the rules.” In many cases, that can be a good thing.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 


Written by fabiorojas

June 28, 2017 at 4:12 am

independent book stores are back!!! a guest post post by clayton childress

Clayton Childress is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Toronto. While making the case for examining the relationships between fields and reuniting the sociological studies of production and reception, Under the Cover empirically follows a works of fiction from start to finish: all the way from its creation, through its production, selling, and reading.

Three Reasons Independent Bookstores Are Coming Back

 A couple weeks ago, Fabio had a post about the recent rise in brick-and-mortar independent bookstores, suggesting that perhaps they have successfully repositioned themselves as “artisanal organizations” that thrive through the specialized curation of their stock, and through providing “authentic,” and maybe even somewhat bespoke, book buying experiences for their customers.

There’s some truth to this, but in my forthcoming book, I spend part of a chapter discussing the other factors. Here’s several of them.

Why the return:

1)     The Demise of the Borders Group, and Shifting Opportunity Space in Brick-and-Mortar Bookselling.

This graph from Statista in Fabio’s original post starts in 2009, lopping off decades of retrenchment in the number of American Bookseller Association member stores. Despite the recent uptick, independent bookstores have actually declined by about 50% since their peak. More importantly, it’s worth noting that even in the graph we see independent bookstores mostly holding steady from 2009 to 2010, with their rise starting in 2011. Why does this matter? As Dan Hirschman rightly hypothesizes in the comments section of the original post, the bankruptcy and liquidation of the Borders Group began in February of 2011, and is key to any story about the return of independent bookstores. To put some numbers to it, between 2010 and 2011 the Borders Group closed its remaining 686 stores, and between 2010 and 2016 – after spending decades in decline –651 independent bookstores were opened. It’s a pretty neat story of nearly one-to-one replacement between Borders and independents since 2011.*

Yet, if anything, this isn’t as much a surprising story about the continued prevalence of independent bookstores themselves, but rather, a story about the continued prevalence of paper as a medium through which people like to consume the types of books that are mostly sold in independent bookstores. When Borders liquated people didn’t predict that independents would take their place, but that’s because they had mostly misattributed the bankruptcy of Borders to the rise of eBook technology and Amazon. That story was never quite right, though. Borders last year of turning a profit, 2006, mostly predated these supposed causal factors. Instead, Borders’ rise to prominence came through a competitive advantage in their back-end logistics operations, which they then never really updated, and by the mid-2000s they had turned from a market leader to a market trailer. Borders also invested more floor space in selling CDs right when that market started to decline, and then turned that floor space into the selling of DVDs right when that market started to decline – their stores were always too big, and they seemed to have a preternatural ability to keep on filling them with the wrong things. As for the rise of Amazon and online book sales in the decline of Borders, they did play a role, but not the one that people think. In perhaps one of the least prescient moves in the history of American bookselling, as online bookselling started to take off, Borders decided to not spend resources investing in that market, and instead contracted their online bookselling out to Amazon, helping them on their way to dominance of the market. Oh, you dummies.

So, while it was mostly back-end distribution problems, stores that were too big, and a series of bad bets that tanked Borders, its demise was never really about a lack of demand for print books, which allowed independents to fill that market space after Borders disappeared. For independent used book stores (which have always had as much of a supply problem as a demand problem), advances in back end supply systems have in fact made them more viable.

2)     Independent Bookstores are the Favored Trading Partners of the Publishing Industry.

Starting during the Great Depression, in order to keep bookstores in business, book publishers began letting them return any (damaged or undamaged) unsold books, meaning that for nothing more than the cost of freight bookstores could pack books up to the ceiling without taking on much financial risk on stocking decisions (if you’ve ever been curious why so many bookstores seem so overstuffed with product, here’s your answer).

It was the beginning of a long history of cooperation between publishers and sellers, and the cooperation has never been more friendly than it is between publishers and independent stores. Publishers and bookstores want the same thing: for people to go into bookstores looking for the books that are actually in stock. With about 300,000 new industry-published books coming out per year, that’s no small feat. For this reason, cooperation between publishers and independents is key, and they rely on an informal system of gift exchange, the details of which I go into in my book.

With the rise of chain bookstores such as Walden, Crown, Barnes & Noble, and Borders, this cooperation became formalized as “co-op,” a system in which publishers nominate their books, and if they are chosen for co-op by the seller, then pay to have their books placed on front tables and endcaps across the country. The basic shorthand is that it costs a publisher about a dollar per copy to get their book on a front table at Barnes & Noble, which is very roughly the same amount that an author gets paid per copy to write the book in her advance (talk to any publisher for long enough and they’ll grind their teeth while noting this).

From the cooperation system with independents the chains developed “co-op”, but a publisher’s relationship with Amazon is closer to coercion. With the chains, publishers can decide to nominate for “co-op” or not, but as soon as publisher sells a book on Amazon they’ve already entered into an enforced “co-op” agreement, in which usually around 6-8% of all of their revenue from selling on Amazon is then withheld, and must be used to advertise on Amazon for future titles. This tends to gets talked about less as “coercion”, and more as “just the way things are” –it’s what happens when you have a retailer that dominates the space enough to set its own terms.

As a result, while book publishers like independent bookstores because they believe them to be owned and staffed by true book lovers (Jeff Bezos was famously disinterested in books when launching Amazon – books are just fairly durable objects of standard size and shape and therefore ship well, making them a good test market for the early days of ecommerce), they also do everything they can to support independent bookstores because their trading terms with them are most favorable to publishers. In their most extreme forms, we can see publishing professionals collaborate in opening their own independent bookstores, but more generally, they engage in subtler forms of support: getting their big name authors to smaller places, and maybe over-donating a little bit to the true cost of printing flyers, and covering the cost of wine and cheese for when the author gets there. Rather than doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, however, publishers do it because independent bookstores are good for them to have around, as they’re the only booksellers who are too small and diffuse to make publishers do things.

3)    A Further Reorientation to Niche Specialization at Independents

Here we get to artisanal organizations, and the independent bookstores that are sticking around (or even more importantly, opening) have mostly given up aspirations of being generalists. In Toronto, we’ve got an independent bookstore which specializes in aviation, another for medieval history, and a third which has found a niche for discount-priced theology.* They’re like the Cascade sour beers to Barnes & Noble’s pilsners. While it’s definitely a trend, it’s not one I’d trace back just to 2010, as instead, the artisanal organization market position is one that independent bookstores have been relying on at least back into the 1980s.

In addition to just being niche, while independent hardware stores and grocers were going the way of the dodo, independent bookstores were also able to both capture and foment the formation of the “buy independent” social movements of the 1990s. It’s not many retail outlets that can successfully advocate for their mere existence as a public good. For instance, when was the last time that the New York Times unironically quoted somebody referring to the closing of an independent laundromat halfway across the country as a civic tragedy? As generalist independent bookstores have come to terms with their inability to compete on breadth with Barnes & Noble and Amazon, we see not only a transition to niche sellers, but also more sellers overall, as each one tends to take up a smaller footprint and have lower overhead costs than the independents of the past.


Of course, while there has been a rise in the number of independent bookstores in the 2010s, we shouldn’t overstate it, or be certain that it will continue. At the end of the day –and nobody likes to admit this –we’re talking about a segment that makes up less than 10% of industry sales and is still way down from its peak. It took one of the two major brick-and-mortar chains going out of business for this return to happen, but if Barnes & Noble goes under, it will upend any balance left between Amazon and everyone else. Yet unlike the industries for music and journalism, a preference for analog books among a major segment of the market doesn’t seem to be going away. Maybe if Barnes goes under we’ll instead be graphing the rise of brick-and-mortar bookstores by Amazon, and romantically pine for the good old days of Barnes as the industry villain.

 *If you’re a cynic, or even just a careful optimist, you’re also going to want to factor in the 80 stores Barnes & Noble has closed since 2010. So, since 2010 that’s a loss of 766 big brick-and-mortar bookstores which were selling a lot of books, and a gain of 655 generally much smaller brick-and-mortar bookstores which are generally selling many fewer books. Yet the number of physical books sold hasn’t really declined, and has actually increased for three years running (for reasons that are the subject of another post). In any case, the difference has been made up by Amazon.

**H/T to Christina Hutchinson and Chanmin Park, two undergraduate students in my Culture, Creativity, and Cities course, for these examples. You can see some of their work on bookstores, as well as other students’ great (and in progress!) work from this semester on Toronto martial arts studios, Korean and Indian restaurants, religious centers, food festivals, and so on here.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street


Written by fabiorojas

March 30, 2017 at 12:21 am

global resistance in the neoliberal university

Those of you who are interested in fending off growing neoliberalism in the university might be interested in the following international  line-up at CUNY’s union, PSC.
You can watch a livestream of the conference via fb starting tonight, Fri., March 3, 6-9pm and Sat., March 4, 9:30am-6pm EST:
…an international conference on Global Resistance in the Neoliberal University organized by the union will be held today and tomorrow, 3/3rd-4th at the PSC, 61 Broadway.  
Scholars, activists and students from Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Greece, India and the US will lead discussions on perspectives, strategies and tactics of resisting the neoliberal offensive in general, and in the context of the university in particular.
You can visit this site for a link to the conference program:
Due to space constraints, conference registration is now closed. But we’re thrilled by the tremendous interest in the event! You can watch a livestream of the conference here:  If you follow us on our Facebook page, you will receive a notification reminding you to watch.  
We look forward to seeing some of you tonight and to discussing the conference with many of you in the near future. 



Written by katherinechen

March 3, 2017 at 11:29 pm

the antitrust equilibrium and three pathways to policy change

Antitrust is one of the classic topics in economic sociology. Fligstein’s The Transformation of Corporate Control and Dobbin’s Forging Industrial Policy both dealt with how the rules that govern economic life are created. But with some exceptions, it hasn’t received a lot of attention in the last decade in econ soc.

In fact, antitrust hasn’t been on the public radar that much at all. After the Microsoft case was settled in 2001, antitrust policy just hasn’t thrown up a lot of issues that have gotten wide public attention, beyond maybe griping about airline mergers.

But in the last year or so, it seems like popular interest in antitrust is starting to bubble up again.

Just in the last few months, there have been several widely circulated pieces on antitrust policy. Washington Monthly, the Atlantic, ProPublica (twice), the American Prospect—all these have criticized existing antitrust policy and argued for strengthening it.

This is timely for me, because I’ve also been studying antitrust. As a policy domain that is both heavily technocratic and heavily influenced by economists, it’s a great place to think about the role of economics in public policy.

Yesterday I put a draft paper up on SocArXiv on the changing role of economics in antitrust policy. The 1970s saw a big reversal in antitrust, when we went from a regime that was highly skeptical of mergers and all sorts of restraints on trade to one that saw them as generally efficiency-promoting and beneficial for consumers. At the same time, the influence of economics in antitrust policy increased dramatically.

But while these two development are definitely related—there was a close affinity between the Chicago School and the relaxed antitrust policy of the Reagan administration, for example—there’s no simple relationship here: economists’ influence began to increase at a time when they were more favorable to antitrust intervention, and after the 1980s most economists rejected the strongest Chicago arguments.

I might write about the sociology part of the paper later, but in this post I just want to touch on the question of what this history implies about the present moment and the possibility of change in antitrust policy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

January 9, 2017 at 6:51 pm